Is This The Extinction Event We Were Warned About?

Geologists have been talking about peak oil for quite a while now. Yet, there are still oil deposits that haven’t been tapped. And in some places fracking has been implemented to squeeze more out of the ground.

But, even if we use up all the oil in the world, it won’t be the end of life as we know it. There are substitute fuels and technologies waiting in the wings, waiting for that day when the powerful oil companies become redundant.

But there is another natural resource that is reaching its peak, and there are no substitutes for this resource, and most importantly, without it, all life on earth would perish.

If ever there was a potential extinction event it would probably be the depletion of phosphorus. Why is phosphorus so important? Every living thing (whether plant, animal, or human) needs phosphorus to produce healthy cells. So, the fact that the world’s reserves of phosphorus are dwindling fast is really bad news. Unlike oil, which is found in many areas of the globe, phosphorus is not as ubiquitous.

An estimated 85 percent of the globe’s phosphate reserve is controlled by Morocco’s royal family. Much of it is located in the Western Sahara. Jeremy Grantham, cofounder of the prominent Boston-based global investment firm Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo & Co., called this “the most important quasi-monopoly in economic history.”

Oddly, peak phosphorus doesn’t get the attention that peak oil gets and yet it is far more important. In a recent essay in Nature, Grantham, who also runs an environmental foundation, put the case bluntly: Our phosphorus use “must be drastically reduced in the next 20-40 years or we will begin to starve.”

The United States imports about 10 percent of our phosphate from Morocco. We also have some phosphorus mining operations in the U. S. The largest mining operation is in Florida.

Florida's strip mining operation solves one problem adn creates another.

Florida’s phophorus  mining creates a huge environmental problem.

Mining for phosphorus is environmentally devastating. It requires stripping large areas of land. It also creates massive amounts of phosphogypsum, an undesirable and toxic waste product. Phosphogypsum contains low levels of radiation and several heavy metals.

To date, these waste products have not been dealt with. There are huge piles of the stuff  in mining regions. The EPA estimates that central Florida houses nearly 1 billion metric tons of toxic phosphogypsum and it keeps growing to the tune of 32 million metric tons each year.

As the toxic waste piles grow, the phosphorus reserves dwindle. It is estimated that within 25 years Florida’s phosphorus will be depleted.

Is this a hopeless situation? No, there are ways to extract phosphorus from waste products, but to date no one is recycling waste products. Currently, phosphorus is allowed to fallow in the fields or wash away into waterways and eventually into the ocean. Animal manure and human urine are excellent sources of phosphorus. But there isn’t any infrastructure in place to recycle these waste products.

There is no simple solution, but its crucial that something be done soon because our other option is to pay outragious prices to the King of Morroco,  and eventually use up all the phosphorus.

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An Unlikely Hero In The Killing Fields

The little country of Cambodia, located in South East Asia, has suffered three decades of war. This has taken a severe toll on its citizens. But even though the battles have finally ended, the casualties continue. The victims are often curious young boys who explore the countryside and discover one of the many existing landmines planted decades ago.

The Cambodian Mine Action Authority, established in late 2000 to regulate mine activities, estimates that these demining operations cost a staggering $30 million per year. But the cost of lives and limbs is even more staggering. The Cambodian Mine Victim Information Service has recorded 19,684 people killed by mines since 1979. They also have one of highest rates of amputees in the world, with approximately 40,000 sufferers.

Currently, there are four main demining organizations working in Cambodia – The Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), The HALO Trust, and the Mines Advisory Group (MAG). At the current rate of funding and activity, it could take up to another 20 years to clear the mines from Cambodia’s soil.

It is extremely dangerous work to locate and disable landmines. They are buried beneath the soil, so they are an invisible threat. Since their housing is typically made of plastic, a metal detector will not find them. Unfortunately, there are no maps or charts to indicate where they are buried.

sniffing-rat

This unlikely hero is doing an important job.

But now, Cambodia is getting a “little” help from an unusual source. Rats! Gambian Pouched Rats to be precise. These rodents were deployed to Cambodia from Tanzania in April by a Belgian non-profit organization, APOPO, to help clear these deadly mines. APOPO has used the rodents for mine-clearing projects in several countries, including Angola, Mozambique, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.

One of the biggest advantages of using rats is that landmines pose no danger to them because the rats are not heavy enough to trigger an explosion. These clever rats are trained from the time they are 4 weeks old to sniff out TNT. When they find it, they scratch the ground at the site. 

rat Food_Reward

All the rats ask in return is a little love and a bite of banana.

The team of 15 rats and 18 handlers are still in training mode, but these rats are showing great promise. It takes one of these rats a matter of minutes to find a mine. It could take a human days, and it would be extremely dangerous work. One false move and a limb or a life could be lost.

A typical work day for these rats will find them in a training field, fitted with a harness which is connected by a leash to a matrix that confines the rat to a specific section of the field being searched. The rat sniffs around within this area and reacts when it gets a whiff of dynamite by digging at the target spot. The rats are then rewarded with a bite of banana.

Deploying these little bomb sniffers and their handlers in high numbers could drastically reduce the time needed to remove the deadly mines in Cambodia’s killing fields.

For their handlers, the rats are more than bomb detectors. “They are not just rats, they are like my brothers,” said 41-year-old handler Meas Chamroeun.

Cats and Other Critters

We have three cats. Butterfly is a 16-year-old cantankerous old female. If she had her way the other two cats would disappear. If she was younger and still in fighting condition, she would make that happen. Our other two cats are mother and son, a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old. The mother is Daisy. The son is Shady.

We used to have four cats. Several months ago Shady lost one of his eyes in a cat fight. The cat that attacked him was his own father, Grady. There was too much competition between these two neutered males and we decided that one of them had to leave. We found a great home for Grady. He is the only cat in his new home, but shares the three acres with a dog and a bunch of chickens. He is very happy there.

With the help of a vet, Shady recovered from his injury very well. I thought having lost his 3-D vision might curtail some of his hunting, but I was wrong.

Recently, I was awaken by a persistent click-click noise. I figured it was some sort of critter, dragged in by one of my cats. My first thought was a bird, but I had never heard a bird make a sound like that before. I got out of bed, followed the sound and ended up in the livingroom. I turned on the light and found Shady lying on the couch, facing the wall, his focus near the ceiling. I followed his gaze and saw what he was watching.

possum 2

Shady’s prized capture escaped to the top of the livingroom curtains.

Perched on the curtain rod a few inches from the ceiling, was a little furry fellow about 4 inches long. He was dark-gray with a white face. His pink hairless feet grasped the fabric of the curtain. I even saw his curled up pink tail. I recognized the species right away. This little cutie was a baby opossum, except down here in North Carolina we say ‘possum. He appeared unscathed and seemed rather content on his perch. I’m sure he was relieved to discover that cats don’t climb curtains. At least, not this one.

Obviously, Shady’s plan was to wait patiently for the possum to come down from its safe haven. My plan was totally different. I wanted it out of my house, but alive and safe.

I couldn’t just reach up and grab him. I would surely be bitten. So, I considered my options. The best idea would make use of his instincts, and that meant coaxing him onto another perch. A broom handle was long enough, but too slippery for him to grip. I didn’t want him falling into the jaws of the ever vigilant Shady. I needed to give the handle some texture.

I remembered a roll of shelf lining that I bought recently which is designed to prevent dishes from sliding. It has a mesh design and would be easy for this little guy to grip.

I cut off a few inches of the fabric and wound it around the broom handle. Then secured it with rubber bands. Voila! I had my extraction tool.

possum 1

It was such an awesome moment when the possum curled his tail around my finger.

Now, the hard part, convincing this little critter to move onto the stick. I climbed onto a chair to meet him eye to eye. I spoke to him in a soft voice. He was already calm, I just didn’t want to do anything that would change that. I dared to touch his fur and allowed his tail to curl around my finger. This just might have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

He was quite calm for a critter who had climbed the curtains to avoid being eaten. Yet he seemed to trust me not to eat him. I positioned the handle next to him and gently nudged him from behind and he slowly moved toward the broomstick. It took only a few moments before all four feet were securely gripping the handle. He remained calm the entire time. I think he recognized me as his rescuer.

possum 3

The little critter held on for dear life as I transported him to a safer environment.

It was time to transport him to a safer place. I carried the handle horizontally through the house and through the backdoor, careful not to make any sudden moves. I considered the cat too late. I should have locked him in a bedroom. Because, now, he was following me with his eagle eye on the possum, just waiting for it to fall.

Shady followed me the good long distance I walked from the house to one of our smaller trees. It was actually harder to convince the critter to move onto the tree than it was the broom handle. All the while, Shady was watching and waiting for a mishap.

The critter finally moved on to the tree and clung to a branch. I said good-bye and good luck to the precious little creature, saying a silent prayer for his or her safety and a family reunion by daybreak. I then picked up the cat, carried him to the house, and scolded him for bringing home yet another critter.

I then locked the pet door so he couldn’t run back out to the tree that our little friend was clinging to. I was determined that the poor little thing would be safe for this one night, at least.

I never saw the possum again. I checked the tree. If I ever see it again it would have been because Shady had found it. It may not fare as well a second time. I like to imagine that the little cutie found its mother and siblings by daybreak.

~~~

Not surprising, this episode did not end Shady’s hunting. Early this Saturday morning I took an injured bunny away from him with the faint hope of nursing it back to health. But, sadly, its injuries were too severe. It died less than 24 hours later.

These adventures don’t always end with a “happily ever after.”